In the Mekong Delta, declining fish catch is the most noticeable symptom of environmental changes that are threatening traditional livelihoods. A WLE Greater Mekong project, working with local institutions, has been raising awareness of the issues causing this decline and is now detecting grass-roots desire to change livelihood systems as people look to return their ecosystems to better health.
The Mekong Delta is of great importance not only to Vietnam’s economy but to the whole Mekong region. The area is known as the rice bowl of Vietnam, producing around 90% of the country’s rice exports and also supplying fish and fruit to neighbouring countries.
Since the early 1990s, rice farming has gradually intensified as irrigation networks have expanded and use of inputs has increased. Some farmers began growing three rice crops per year and, with the addition of the full dyke system in the early 2000s, many more farmers became able to triple-crop. While this enabled rice production to increase until Vietnam became one of the world’s largest rice exporters, the environmental drawbacks have begun to affect many residents of the Delta.
More fertiliser is needed each year to maintain rice yields on land that is so intensively farmed. The network of irrigation canals and gates catches input-laden water that run offs from fields and holds it in closed channels for much of the year, meaning that agricultural chemicals build up in the system. This is thought to be one of the main factors in the decline of fish catch across the Delta.
Fish are disappearing from rivers, streams and canals, and along with aquatic species such as shrimps and frogs, they are becoming less common in paddy fields. This reduction in freely available traditional protein sources greatly affects poorer households. As fish become harder to find, people resort to more extreme methods of catching them. The rising use of electricity, small-mesh nets and chemicals then further damages aquatic resource populations.
At the same time weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable. Drought periods are followed by floods, while salt water from the South China Sea at the end of the Delta is intruding further up the river system every year.
The WLE project River food systems from villagers’ perspectives in the Mekong Delta has spent two years talking to farmers and local officials about what is happening to water resources, and is disseminating its findings for wider discussion. Under the project, a Vietnamese NGO, WARECOD, has joined with researchers from Can Tho University, members of government agencies and mass organisations, and Vietnam Television to document the situation and work with local people to plan ways of reversing environmental degradation.
According to Dr Mai Viet Van of the Aquaculture and Fisheries College at Can Tho University, a revised approach to agricultural development can help people in the Delta reverse ecological decline and cope with climate change. "By diversifying crop and livestock systems, farmers can raise species that are adapted to brackish water to take advantage of the rising salinity," he explains.
This would mean adapting existing irrigation systems in the area. Research conducted by WARECOD among communities and local authorities suggests the will to make such changes exists. Local people participated in the research through the Thaibaan method, pioneered in the Mekong Basin to promote better management of water resources.
Mr Nguyen Van Nuong of Thoi Thanh Commune says this research has helped people understand their own role in managing water resources, notably about how use of pesticides and disposal of rubbish can affect their long-term livelihoods.
Special effort has been made to ensure women and ethnic minorities participate in the research so that its findings are known throughout the population. Early results have been encouraging. Following consultations in Bac Lieu province, farmers have adapted their livelihood strategies to include extensive shrimp farming, which uses the brackish water found locally and has minimum impact on the environment. Farmers grow rice when fresh water flows through the local channels and change to shrimp farming when the seawater arrives.
Dr Đào Thị Việt Nga of WARECOD says this adaptation is encouraging but that many people in the Delta need external support to change their livelihoods approach. “We have been able to provide knowledge support across a wide geographical area, helping people to see the reality of the environmental situation. We have shown people ecologically sound alternatives, but follow up is required. If everyone in an area chooses the same livelihood strategies, it will not work”.
The authorities acknowledge the situation and want to support people’s desire for change, but they lack sufficient resources. Dr Đào says further investment in behaviour change is essential to the health of ecosystems in the Delta. “We have momentum now and it must not be lost. Widespread change is required soon or the recovery period for many ecosystem service will be too long”.